Confessions of a Jihadi Nerd: A Guide to Reading the New Bin Laden Documents


Today, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a new batch of declassified documents recovered during the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Like most terrorism researchers (nerds), I am excited to see these documents finally come to light as I think they provide a much needed window for the public to see inside al Qaeda’s operations and thinking. These documents will provide excellent primary source material for researchers and ideally yield insights into how terrorist groups operate — illuminating their vulnerabilities and offering solutions to mitigate their violence.

Today’s declassification dump is not the first, however. Going back to 2006, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (where I used to work) began declassifying documents under the Harmony project. Harmony and Disharmony was the first in several research projects involving declassified internal al Qaeda documents. One of my roles at the Combating Terrorism Center was to assist in the triaging and declassification of internal al Qaeda documents for research compilations. And it seems Mr. Bin Laden particularly liked the work of Will McCants.

I often read headlines stating there are “millions” of al Qaeda documents that should be declassified to the public for analysis. The truth is that only a handful of these documents provide insightful information worth reading and pondering. Imagine if someone tipped over your house and went through every piece of paper and book you owned looking for clues about your thinking. Most of what would be found are just scraps of paper, of which only a fraction would illuminate anything about you. Al Qaeda is no different.

After spending a painful number of hours sifting through al Qaeda documents, panning for gold, I have the following recommendations for where to start when you see an al Qaeda document release. If you are new to al Qaeda’s internal documents and these declassifications, here’s my triaging strategy. An important note, the U.S. government has released only a few documents — a small percentage of the total. All of the documents surely have some significance.

Focus on documents with operational instructions over big ideas.

The biggest mistake I’ve seen with people analyzing al Qaeda documents is too great a focus on strategic ideas rather than operational instructions. With al Qaeda documents, I prefer to focus on what they do over what they say. Al Qaeda guys are always making plans. They’re terrorists, that’s what they do. And when they are holed up, as Bin Laden was for a decade, they have a lot of time to sit and ponder things and dream big thoughts. Many of the ideas in these documents have already come out through the group’s public pronouncements. What’s really valuable in the al Qaeda documents is what you can’t see from open sources — the actual operational instructions given to pursue courses of action. These are gold. Read them first — that’s what al Qaeda actually committed to doing rather than what they were dreaming about.

Look at the letters to Atiyah.

To find operational documents, focus on letters to key operations managers in al Qaeda — namely Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. He was the key interlocutor between Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and al Qaeda’s top lieutenants around the world. These new documents reveal that he appears to have received a direct tasking to exploit the Arab Spring. For operational insights, Atiyah is the guy to check out first. I’d start with these two letters (here and here) to Atiyah.

Coincidentally, when you are the key hub in a terrorist group and lots of intelligence is gained in a raid, say in Abbottabad, you’re likely the next guy to get a warhead-to-the-forehead. Note, Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Atiyah found his end from a drone by the end of August 2011.

Check out the administrative documents.

Aside from being fascinating, administrative documents reveal unparalleled insight into how a group operates. After focusing on key operational leader documents, I always move quickly to human resources and financing documents. HR documents, such as the foreign fighter records from Sinjar, Iraq from a few years back, tell you not only how al Qaeda operates internally, but also the state of jihadi interest abroad: They tell us what motivates recruits, and sometimes, provide a window into where the next wave of jihadi violence will occur and who will be responsible. Jacob Shapiro, a former co-author of mine for a Harmony release, is the best at understanding these documents and I’ll look for his gems in the coming months [Editor’s note: Hopefully at War on the Rocks!].

In this batch, the document listing instructions for al Qaeda applicants reveals so much about the group’s attempts to recruit operatives able to infiltrate the West (aka “clean skins”) and their efforts to partition individuals from each other for operational security purposes. Remember, this new al Qaeda application should be seen as a companion and comparison document to the al Qaeda employment contract released back in 2006.

Look at communications with affiliates.

A consistently murky area for all research on al Qaeda is the secret communiqués between al Qaeda’s central leadership and the group’s affiliates. These final Bin Laden communications with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and even his desire to keep al Shabaab in a secretive status, may explain both the trajectory each of these affiliates took pushing for an emirate status after Bin Laden’s death and each of the groups’ declining in succession (although AQAP in Yemen may now have a second wind).

Watch for Iran linkages.

The al Qaeda operatives holed up in Iran have always been a big black hole in understanding al Qaeda. Why did they go there? What were they up to? Was Iran in bed with al Qaeda? Check out this document in particular and others describing the Iran linkages with al Qaeda. It appears al Qaeda lost a lot of manpower to Iranian detention. It’s possible that the reason for al Qaeda’s weak showing in Libya post-Arab Spring was due to its losing many of its key former members of the Islamic Fighting Group to Iran’s prisons. The entire Iran aspect in these documents is new stuff.

Read about plans for the Arab Spring.

This release provides several documents related to Bin Laden’s reaction and plans for the Arab Spring (here). These are critical to really understanding al Qaeda’s decline vis-à-vis the Islamic State. Start with this document where Bin Laden instructs Atiyah to organize communications with Arab Spring countries and then look as his communications to any person or group in Syria (here). BLUF: Bin Laden had a plan, al Qaeda tried but missed the Arab Spring, and the Islamic State has reaped the spoils.

Look at the letters to Yahya.

Bin Laden’s top cleric at the time of his death was Abu Yahya al-Libi. If your thing is understanding the ideological direction of al Qaeda vis-a-vis the political objectives of the group, letters between Abu Yahya and Bin Laden will get you what you want. Start here and here, and there are many more. Also, I’d assume Will McCants will make the most sense of these documents in the coming weeks and months. He’s done it before at Jihadica and here is a valuable primary al Qaeda document index he put together that can assist in understanding these documents.

Read shorter documents first and save the long stuff for later or wait for a CliffsNotes version.

Al Qaeda members have egos and they sure can write when they get on something. The longer documents always have great lessons to be learned but the reading to pay-off ratio of these documents can be much lower. If a document goes on for more than seven pages, I quickly put it to the back of the pile. Rich operational documents providing the most bang for the buck are generally shorter and use bullets. I already noticed this short lessons learned document, for example, where Bin Laden basically illustrates how many of his operatives were sloppy and ended up getting themselves killed. My recommendation: Wait for terrorism analysts or academics to wade through and interpret the long documents and create a CliffsNotes version.

Read the novelty items and then let it go.

News headlines will focus on the surprising oddities revealed in the Bin Laden documents. Years ago it was that al Qaeda offered vacations or that Bin Laden dyed his beard black to look younger. This time, the favorite novelty document appears to be Bin Laden’s bookshelf laden with books on everything from climate change to Jewish conspiracy documents. Read these documents, enjoy, savor the weirdness and move on. Don’t read too much into them or try and glean some psychological insight into al Qaeda master plans. Remember, Bin Laden was holed up for a decade. That’ll make crazy terrorist leaders even crazier!

I’m starting my reading of the documents now, and I hope my lessons learned from squandering hours reading al Qaeda jibberish can help you find the nuggets of terrorist insight you are looking for. Two other reminders: One, remember that many of these are letters, so you only get half of the story. Bin Laden will routinely say “regarding your letter,” leaving you not knowing what prompted Bin Laden to respond. Analysts always interpret this context differently. Two, you don’t know whether the person addressed by the letter from Bin Laden actually received it, and if they did receive it, that they did what they were told. As time went on in al Qaeda land, recipients of communiqués, in my opinion, didn’t always do what they were told.

Happy hunting!


Clint Watts is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and The George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.  Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.